While speed helps determine the outcome of most games, it does so differently for each sport. In baseball, speed can mean a batter outrunning a throw to first, an outfielder running down a fly ball or a shortstop fielding a slow-roller fast enough to turn a double-play. For football, speed can translate to a touchdown if a wide receiver can beat a cornerback on a streak or a defensive end besting an offensive tackle on a speed rush to sack the quarterback.
To Jeff Howser, 110-meter high hurdle bronze medalist in the 1969 World Championship, speed doesn’t mean beating an opponent to the finish line any more. Instead, speed means running up, down and all around the field—fast. "In soccer, while [linear speed] is important,, rotational speed is really much more applicable to the game itself," says Howser.. "The game is not played in straight-ahead movements, but instead the situation on the field determines which direction a soccer player must travel."
Rotational speed is the ability to rotate, run and accelerate from 20 to 180 degrees quickly. In his third season as Duke University’s men’s and women’s soccer speed and conditioning coach, Howser uses a speed development program that revolves around improving the three most important facets of rotational speed: balance, hip strength and power, and acceleration.
The success of Howser’s rotational speed program shines in both of Duke’s soccer programs, as each team made it to the 2004 NCAA tournament. The women finished an impressive season making it to the Sweet 16, while the men advanced to the Final Four for the fifth time in recent years. But, more impressive than the Blue Devils’ tournament showing, both teams have experienced a clear transformation of playing style—a result of increased game speed. "Until recently, we have not been known as a particularly fast team," says Howser. "We were not able to successfully launch it long and run for it like a South American team does. We were basically forced to play a more European style of the game."
Some players’ times have decreased as much as 0.3 of a second, 0.5 of a second and a full second in a lateral start 10-, 20- and 40-yard sprint, respectively. Two players of notable improvement are Rebecca Moros and Carmen Bognanno. Both have received national recognition and awards for their improved play.
To improve speed, Howser’s athletes perform the following drills. While performing each drill, focus on quality and good technique; do not fatigue to the point of sacrificing quality.
Eccentric Deceleration Training
Typically, if you can stop quickly, you can start and sprint quickly. These exercises work that theory, because they force quick deceleration while maintaining balance before exploding into a sprint. This training develops balance as well as leg and hip power. Howser says these drills work because a player hardly ever starts from a set stance.
Stand on a box about 2 feet high to start. Step off and land on both feet simultaneously. Immediately upon landing, without any false step, decelerate and sprint left or right 90 degrees or straight for 10 to 20 yards.
As your balance and leg power improve, you will be able to get into the sprint quicker. According to your strength gains, gradually increase the box height. Complete 8 to 10 repetitions, alternating the direction of your sprint between left, right and straight ahead. Rest one full minute between reps.
*Coaching point: Howser says spend as little time on the ground as possible before exploding into the sprint. However, make sure to decelerate to a point where you regain control and have some power in your legs.
Box Drops with Hurdle
This drill is identical to the standard box drop except at the actual drop from the box. When you land from the drop, jump over a small hurdle landing with both feet on the other side. At this point, decelerate and sprint the same as above without a false step. Complete 6 reps alternating direction of the sprint. Rest one minute between reps.
Advanced Modification (Box Drop)
Once both box drop drills are mastered and your balance is improved, have a teammate or coach give verbal commands of which direction to sprint while you are in the air. This forces a reaction in a short period of time.
Lateral Sprint Training
Howser promotes this speed technique because it effectively develops internal and external hip rotators. According to the Duke coach, working rotators doesn’t happen in the weight room, because it is limited to frontal and saggital (right and left) planes of movement. "There is not much done in the transverse plane where you are opening up your hips," he explains.
The goal of lateral speed training is twofold. It develops an athlete’s ability to generate power from a loaded leg and hip and teaches proper hip rotation. This helps an athlete drive the hips and knees to get a 90-degree hip rotation while running.
This drill helps open up and strengthen the hips. Beginning on one foot, bound laterally and at a slight angle tighter than 45 degrees. Land on the opposite foot and absorb the force while immediately exploding off that leg into another bound. Work on getting full extension with the hips, knees and ankles to generate power from the leg and hip being loaded.
Continue this motion over a 15 to 20 yard distance. Rest for one minute and then repeat. After completion, move to Speed Skater sprints.
Linear Speed Training
Linear speed refers to straight ahead sprinting and explosion. Howser does single-leg work with linear speed drills because his experience shows that "athletes are generally 15 percent stronger in one leg than the other and, therefore, move better on one side." With this in mind, emphasize form during these drills to prevent one leg compensating for a lack of strength in the other.
Howser’s players complete these drills 3 times a week during the off-season training program. However, that routine is cut to twice a week two weeks before the season begins. And, although it is OK to perform these drills on the same day as weight training, do the speed drills first. Weight training first will affect the quality and speed of muscle contraction, which are two key points of the drills.
During training, steadily increase volume and intensity until reaching the upper level of the given repetition ranges. Anything beyond that diminishes returns and negatively affects quality.
*Coaching point: Check improvements in rotational speed by having someone time 10-, 20- and 40-yard sprints every 6 weeks. To make this test more applicable to soccer, Howser recommends beginning in a functional stance, such as perpendicular to the starting line.
This drill helps with crossover acceleration, which is vital to a soccer player who is constantly changing the angle of pursuit. Because you are exploding off two legs, your crossover acceleration should be noticeably faster than that of the speed skater sprints. The format is identical to the speed skaters and speed skater sprints, but instead of speed skating and landing on the outside leg, jump and bring the inside leg across to land on that leg, like a high knee carioca. For instance, jump to the left and cross your right leg in front and land on your right foot first. Touch your left foot and jump back the other way crossing your left leg in front and landing on your left leg first. Perform crossovers for 15 to 20 yards and then move to crossover sprints. Perform 8 to 10 reps with one-minute recovery.
Speed Skater Sprints
This drill incorporates the standard Speed Skaters, with the addition of rotating and sprinting. Begin with your feet perpendicular to a line so the line splits your feet. Speed skate left once without traveling forward. Immediately speed skate back to the right upon landing. When you land on your right foot, gather yourself and generate power. Open your hips to the left and drive as hard as you can into a 10- to 20-yard sprint from that loaded position. Perform 8 to 10 reps alternating the starting and sprint direction. Rest for one minute.
Split Jump Sprints
The Split Jump works quads, glutes, hamstrings and hip stabilizers, and is basically an alternating lunge while jumping. Begin in lunge position. Drive through the ground and jump as high as possible from this position. While in the air, switch the position of your legs before landing in an eccentric lunge position. Perform another split jump and then immediately explode into a 10-to 20-yard sprint. Focus on jumping to maximum height and spending a short amount of time on the ground.
Perform a set of 6 split jumps without sprinting as a warm up. Then perform 6 to 8 reps with sprints alternating which foot starts in front. Rest for a full minute between reps.